THE GREAT STEMS HOAX - Various Artists (Off the Hip)

The Stems' importance in the '80s Australian indie music cannot be underplayed. Consider the impediments to success: Firstly, they hailed from Perth, the Most Isolated Capital City in the World and a place where the weather's so good, time is best spent in sunny beer gardens rather than dark, sticky-carpeted shitholes that traditionally breed Rock and Roll. In the days when distance truly was a tyrant, Perth's isolation counted for a lot. Initially signed to a canny Sydney indie label (Citadel) and then to a Melbourne major (Mushroom), the Stems resisted the need to spend more time on the East Coast until the last.

Secondly, they played a raw form of 60s-based rock and roll that, for all its pointy-shoed and paisley-shirted stylings, was both timeless and time-warped. (Actually, that would be more of an impediment NOW, but you get the drift. Call it deja vu, but back then it seemed both record labels and the public were more willing to take a chance on good music.) The Barman's Law of Diminishing Rock Returns simply states that the better a band is, the more likely a major label is likely to fuck with them. The bottom line is that, despite all the amputations, the Stems inspired generation of (now largely ageing) pop-rock fans and musicians, both at home and around Europe, to go one step further than simply pick the best songs from the Nuggets double album, but put their own stamp on the '60s garage genre.

Which brings us to this release, the second disc on the new Off the Hip label and the first tribute for the Stems. Tributes seem to be raining down like confetti in the Bar of late. The Dog Meat effort from the '80s, "Hard to Beat", on which Oz bands paid homage to the Stooges stills holds a special place in the Barman's heart (even if the more contemporary Iggy one of a few years ago does not.) We had a little to do with the Citadel tributes on Divine Rites back in the '90s. There's a Japanese trib to the Saints on 1+2 that I still haven't caught up with, as well as three Birdman-themed discs (two from the US, one from Italy) and yet another Ramones effort on White Jazz, all of which you'll find reviewed elsewhere here.

The value of tributes is a vexed question. Bands can take the concept far too seriously and lay on the reverence all too thick. Consumers, on the other hand, can enjoy them on their own merits, as a sampler of varied bands or a collection of great songs hopefully reprised in different styles. Thankfully, "The Great Stems Hoax" fits in on both counts.

Their name might be a dead giveaway of where they want to be stylistically but the Nuggets from Norway do an admirable job of covering "Never Be Friends". Melbourne's righteous kings of retro Hands of Tyme serve up a nice Farfisa-and-fuzz cocktail with "Tears me in Two". While P76 stick a little too close to the original with "At First Sight", Chump Change (Sydneysiders Ryan Ellsmore from the Scruffs and Eddie Owen from the Pyramidiacs with harmonica playing percussionist Trent McNamara) turn "Make You Mine" into a beguiling blueswailing guitar shuffle. There's a hint and a half of the Keefs in Michael Klarenaar's guitar on a brooding take on "Mr Misery" by the late and often great Hunchbacks while West Australians The Levels do superbly with "Man With the Golden Heart" (with Steven Mancini's guitar and Tony Italiano's production standouts.)

Another Perth person, Joe Algeri, heads to Finland to find country-pop with Ben's Diapers on "She's Fine". Naked Eye's "No Heart" is the dirtiest thing here. Not sure who The Eye Creatures are (although Maria Sokratis helped compile this so they're presumably Australian) and their take on "She's a Monster" (recorded live on a two-track) crosses Falco Burns with the Cramps. Italy is represented by The Others ("On and On") and The Grains ("Running Around"), Germany by The Sick Rose ("Don't Let Me") and Spain by Insanity Wave ("Forget That Girl") while the strangest offering is the Algeri-produced "Can't Turn the Clock Back" from Sweden's Trimatics, who turn a '60s pop song into a moody, ethereal piece of trippy psych. Falsetto harmonies add to the effect.

"Love Will Grow" by the Finkers is probably the best thing here, rising from an acapella intro into slide-guitar pop heaven on a ladder of swelling guitars and voices. Rudolf Raschberger guests on six-strings so I'm guessing this was recorded in Germany during the band's most recent Euro tour. More straight-up rock is Flander Us, a supergroup from Sydney whose members must remain nameless (save for their use of surnames like Hendrix, McCartney, Osterberg and Phillis.) You work it out., but "Sad Girl" is their signature tune. The Crusaders (are they ever going to play again?) reprise "Under Your Mushroom" from their Tim Kerr-produced EP of a few years ago and a wonderful thing it is too. Even turn in a tidy version of the great "For Always", while the fab Stoneage Hearts close it down with a spirited "Move Me" (the three members making multiple appearances, having been on a few other tracks - are these guys the New Melbourne Music Mafia?)

A helluva package. Great songs and, for the most part, adventurous versions. The liner notes are full of glowing reminiscences, if a little light on for biographical details. Still, this should inspire a few to chase many of the bands down. A trib that's not only for Stems fans. - The Barman

1/4

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